Category: Disability Discrimination

Major Awards in Los Angeles Discrimination Case

Luz Hessler worked in the Los Angeles County Department of Health until April 2012. Her story of disability discrimination, racial discrimination, and harassment began in September 2008 after she sustained a work related injury.

Hessler alleged that her manager slammed a door into her knee that resulted in a necessary knee surgery. She further alleged that there was a culture of ongoing discrimination and harassment based on her Mexican heritage and accent from her co-worker Raquel Paxton. Due to the knee injury, Hessler took a leave of absence from work to take care of the surgery.

Plaintiff returned in July 2009. As expected, she had physical work restrictions and accommodations, but more surprisingly Hessler came back to work with psychological restrictions to limit the hostile work environment that she had experienced before. Paxton, the co-worker who was allegedly responsible for the harassment and hostility, took up the mantle once more. Paxton continuously accused Hessler of faking her injury and convinced other employees that Hessler was a fake.

While plaintiff claims the County of LA did little to nothing to properly investigate the abuse, the defendants’ counsel provided evidence that Paxton had been disciplined for her behavior. In response, plaintiff stated the County had given Paxton numerous verbal and informal warnings, but it never culminated into anything of substance. Eventually, in April of 2012, Hessler had to stop working for the County because they would not abide by her accommodations.

Hessler filed her lawsuit initially on April 12, 2013. Though it was a long road for Hessler and her attorneys to trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff. She was awarded $154,040 in damages alone, since her worker’s compensation case took care of her medical expenses. The attorneys, meanwhile, were awarded $1.28 million.

Bizarre Rant Actually A Cry For Help

A Jet Blue captain who was tackled by passengers and restrained by crew mid-flight after raving in the aisles about terrorism, bombs, and religion is suing Jet Blue.  But the suit isn’t from injuries incurred in the fracas, as you might think, but actually for letting him fly that day at all.

The pilot claims to have had a seizure, which caused increasingly bizarre and worrisome behavior over the course of the day, and blames Jet Blue and the flight crew for not getting him to medical help sooner.  Osbon says Jet Blue should have realized there he was experiencing a problem after a number of uncharacteristic acts like missing the pre-flight meeting, being confused and slow in going over pre-flight checks, and failing to answer air traffic control calls.

Osbon even told his copilot that he was mentally unfit to fly shortly into the flight,  but neither the copilot nor Jet Blue took any action.  As Osbon continued to worsen while the plane was still in the air, the seizure lead to severe paranoia and hallucinations, but while he was confined in the cockpit, the airline and crew still did nothing.  It wasn’t until Osbon left the cockpit and ended up ranting up and down the plane aisles that Jet Blue finally decided to do something and made an emergency landing.

As a result, the suit seeks medical expenses incurred because of the significant delay in Osbon receiving medical care, but it also has an employment component, as Osbon’s now well-documented and publicized “meltdown” has likely ended his career not only with Jet Blue but as a commercial pilot in general.

Employers Can’t Ignore Disabled Employees’ Attempts To Return To Work

Very few of the thousands of employment cases filed every year go to trial, but in a recent case an employee plaintiff not only took her case all the way to trial, but also won.

The employee became disabled during her employment and had to take time off work.  When she attempted to return to work with restrictions on how she could work, the company just refused to acknowledge her.  She contacted the company, with no response.  She sent a certified letter to the company, and still not response.  In a blatant violation of its duty to engage in the interactive process and attempt to accommodate a disabled employee so she could come back to work, the company simply chose to ignore her and hope that she went away.

The company’s defense as trial was that it didn’t matter what the company did because the employee was physically unable to do the work at all.  Following the law to the letter, the judge recognized that the law doesn’t allow that kind of lazy, one-sided decision-making.  Even if the company was right, it was still required by law to communicate with the employee and engage in the interactive process with the employee of attempting to make that determination.

This is a fight employers and employees have too often: if the employer thinks the employee can’t physically do the job, why should the employer bother asking for doctors’ notes or paperwork or go to the effort of meeting and talking with the employee?  The answer is simple: because the law absolutely requires it.

The plaintiff in the recent trial recovered $53,608 in wages she lost because of the company’s violation of laws protecting disabled employees and refusal to work with her to see if she could go back to work.

He’s the $5 Million Man

As the weather gets warmer and we transition into spring/summer season, let’s remember one of the most interesting cases of summer 2014.

Robert “Bob” Sallustio, and his wife Nancy Sallustio were in the middle of a terrible divorce. Both worked in the marketing department of Kemper Independence Insurance Co. in Sacramento, CA.

In 2006, in the midst of the divorce, Nancy began suffering from anxiety and stress that became so bad that she needed to seek medical attention and eventually go out on leave. At that point, the company continually harassed Nancy so she would quit her position. According to Bob’s initial lawsuit that escalated to trial, the company, namely the Regional Vice President of Marketing, wanted Nancy to leave because of her depression and crying at work related to the divorce.

Soon, both the Vice President of Human Resources and the Director of Human Resources were also on the bandwagon to get rid of Nancy. During the company’s crusade against her, Nancy finally filed a formal complaint with Human Resources saying she was being harassed and retaliated against for taking that leave and for her ongoing condition.

Nancy went out on a second leave, and upon her return, inquired if she could work from home as an accommodation. The Marketing VP denied her request and filled Nancy’s position with another employee.

Enter Bob, another employee of the company, and Nancy’s soon-to-be ex-wife. Bob also complained about the harassment surrounding Nancy. Bob created his own campaign to sabotage Nancy’s boss’s plans to get her out. This plan included promoting employees out of the marketing department.

Bob was then put under fire for his involvement, though his diplomatic attempts had been ignored. Though he had the support of co-workers and other managers, Bob was swiftly terminated.

Trial for this case lasted over five weeks plus over four days of jury deliberations. The jury awarded $5.65 million in lost wages, future lost wages, punitive damages, and past emotional stress. Standing up for his ex-wife made him the $5 Million Man.

Rand Paul Doesn’t Believe You’re Disabled, But California Does

One big debate in recent news was stirred by politician Rand Paul’s comments about employees on disability.  Sen. Paul suggested more than half of disabled employees were “malingers” – liars who fake illness just to get out of having to work.  Sen. Paul went on to belittle the majority of disabled employees, saying they are just “anxious or their back hurts” and they are not “truly disabled.”

While being a paraplegic is apparently enough for Sen. Paul to consider you “horrifically disabled” and therefore entitled to help – despite the number of persons which similar conditions who are nonetheless hardworking, employed individuals – Sen. Paul suggested that employees suffering from mental disorders and disabilities were simply “gaming the system.”

Fortunately, California law takes a very different view, recognizing that there are a number of disabilities that can make it difficult to work or engage in other major life activities.  While Sen. Paul treats the 14% of disabled employees with mood disorders as freeloaders, California law specifically recognizes the disabling effect of these disorders and protects employees “[h]aving any mental or psychological disorder or condition, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities, that limits a major life activity.”  In fact, two examples, clinical depression and bipolar disorder, are even mentioned in the text of the law.

As an employee in California, you are entitled to certain rights and protections if you are disabled, including reasonable accommodations for any work restrictions and protection from discrimination or being fired because of your disability, including mental illnesses.  Unfortunately, some companies act more like Sen. Rand Paul than law-abiding California corporations and fail to help and protect their disabled employees.  If you have been the victim of disability discrimination or mistreatment by your employer because of a disability, we may be able to help.